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Tuesday, Jan. 25, 2000

Musoyama captures first sumo title at Hatsu Basho

Special to The Japan Times

Six and a half years after his auspicious debut in the top division in September 1993, Musoyama finally won his first yusho, defeating fellow-sekiwake Kaio on senshuraku (final day) to clinch the championship of the 2000 Hatsu Basho Sunday with an outstanding 13-2 record.

Yokozuna Takanohana and komusubi Miyabiyama both finished with 12-3 marks and wound up with runnerup honors, Takanohana for the 11th time.

Akebono finished out of the money in third place with a disappointing 11-4 record, losing three of his last four bouts.

In view of Musoyama's 10-5 record in November for a two-basho total of 23 wins, the Sumo Kyokai may seriously consider promoting the 27-year-old sekiwake to ozeki, but an 8-7 record last September may be a sticking point.

Also, since Takanonami's automatic return to ozeki following his key 10th win Sunday raises the ozeki total back to three and Musoyama would therefore become the fourth ozeki if promoted, the Sumo Kyokai may decide to hold up on promoting Musoyama this time.

Takanohana earned a share of runnerup honors by outlasting fellow-yokozuna Akebono in a tooth-and-nail struggle on the last day, while Miyabi easily marched out No. 13maegashira Kyokutenho.

Sekiwake Takanonami defeated No. 11 maegashira Chiyotenzan to rack up his all-important 10th win and clinch his promotion back to ozeki.

The Shukun-sho (Outstanding Performance Award) was shared by Musashigawa stablemates Musoyama (13-2) and Miyabiyama (12-3), with Muso receiving it for the fifth time for his upset victory over yokozuna Takanohana and Miyabi for the first time for his big win over yokozuna Akebono.

No. 12 maegashira Takanowaka and No. 13 Kyokutenho shared the Kanto-sho (Fighting Spirit Prize), both winning it for the first time.Takanowaka received it for his fine 10-5 record that included a key upset over Miyabiyama, and Tenho for his best-ever record of 11-4, highlighted by his senshuraku upset of sekiwake Tochiazuma.

The Gino-sho (Technique Prize) went to Musoyama for the third time.

Despite his loss to Akebono on the fourth day and to fellow-sekiwake Tochiazuma on the 10th day, Musoyama kept pace with frontrunning Akebono and finally caught up with him by the 13th day. He took the sole lead on the 14th day.

The rugged sekiwake displayed a new vigorous, energetic sumo that was too often lacking in the past. Day after day, he quickly overpowered his opponents, including Takanohana, in one-sided fashion. The only other time Musoyama has chalked up a 13-2 record came at the end of his first year in the Makunouchi Division in the Aki Basho of September 1994.

In '95 and '96 he launched drives for ozeki, but fell short both times. At the end of '97 and early '98, he put together consecutive 11-4 and 10-5 records, but again was unable to follow through and last year he had an 11-4 record and two 10-5 marks, but none of them in succession.

Now the perennial ozeki hopeful stands on the brink of promotion to sumo's second-highest rank. His victory marks the sixth consecutive yusho for Musashigawa Beya.

Runnerup Takanohana trailed throughout the basho, losing to No. 2 maegashira Kotonowaka on the third day, then dropping two in a row on the eighth and ninth days to Musoyama and komusubi Tosanoumi, respectively. But over the last six days, he grew steadily stronger, beating the two ozeki on the 13th and 14th days, then Akebono.

He kept Akebono on the defensive most of the way on senshuraku, finally maneuvering him to the edge and toppling him by yoritaoshi (push down from the back) to climax his somewhat spotty performance. It was surprising that Takanohana lost at the tachi-ai in his bout with Tosanoumi on the ninth day, something he has never done before as a yokozuna. If he could have avoided that unnecessary loss, he would have had a good chance of getting his first yusho since September '98.

His inability to cope with Musoyama on the eighth day was surprising since he had a 23-7 record against the sekiwake going into that bout. And against No. 2 maegashira Kotonowaka, Taka had won 33 out of 36 times.

Obviously, he is having a hard time psyching himself up every day. But the only way to return to his yusho-winning ways is for Takanohana to redouble his efforts.

Miyabiyama is obviously on his way to bigger and better things in the future. This is only the first step on the road upward, but the question remains: How far can he go?

Sumo is now in a sort of transition period, with the old-guard rikishi still on the way out (this includes all four yokozuna as well as several in the lower sanyaku and upper maegashira ranks) and the new-guard rikishi only just beginning to make their appearance.

Both Miyabiyama andTakanowaka could be the forerunners for the new generation. Miyabi showed this time that he can cope with the sanyaku, including the very top ranks, and it would not be too surprising if he reaches ozeki by this time next year.

Akebono, who led the New Year's Tournament through the first eight days and who was tied off and on for the lead until he suffered his third and fourth losses on the last two days, once again finished out of the money.

Last July, the 30-year-old grand champion let the yusho slip from his grasp on the last day of the Nagoya Basho, thanks also to Musashigawa Beya opponents -- ozeki Dejima and yokozuna Musashimaru.

Akebono seemed once again to have victory in his grasp, but his lack of agility cost him dearly. He should have easily beat both Miyabiyama and Tochinonada, but he obviously finds it very difficult to make a sudden change of direction or to stop short once he launches his all-out assault on his opponents.

Akebono beat himself in his bout with Tochinonada, who slipped to one side at the edge. Akebono was unable to prevent himself from plunging out. In his prime, five years ago or so, the yokozuna rarely lost this way. One wonders why he didn't try to come to grips on the mawashi with Chiyotaikai, who is at his weakest when forced to the belt. If he can keep from getting reinjured, Akebono still has a reasonably good chance to finally get his 10th yusho this year.

The two ozeki, Dejima and Chiyotaikai, both had to struggle to kachi-koshi (majority of wins), with the two of them ending up with single-digit win records of 9-6. It was inevitable that both ozeki would suffer a letdown sooner or later -- and this was the time. But at this point, neither one seems to have what it takes to reach the top, although Dejima may have a better chance than Chiyotaikai. But until Dejima is better able to cope with his yotsu-zumo opponents, he won't be ready to move any higher than he is now.

As for the sekiwake, Kaio and Musoyama always seem to be the perennial ozeki candidates, but now that Musoyama is finally making his move, what about Kaio? Kaio was 11-4 in November and there was general agreement that if he could come up with 12 wins this time, he would be promoted. But Kaio didn't even come close. In fact, it was clear by the end of the first week, that he just didn't have what it takes to reach a higher rank -- at least this time.

Kaio's quick, one-sided loss to Musoyama prevented the former from getting his eighth win and ensured his demotion to komusubi in March. It also foreclosed the possibility of a playoff. But this is the umpteenth time Kaio has had a chance to make his move.

In March and May of last year, for instance, he was 10-5 and 12-3. He was runnerup in March '97. Kaio had two 11-4s, two 10-5s and two 9-6s in 1996 and still couldn't put together the numbers that would ensure his promotion to ozeki. With a 7-8 record at this point, the case looks hopeless.

One could ask a similar question about Tochiazuma, although he has been in Makunouchi about half the number of basho as Kaio. He seemed to be on his way after an 11-4 mark in mid-'97, but an injury sidetracked his upward movement.

Last year, he had three 10-5 records, including two in a row in September and November, but here he is in January struggling just to get eight wins. It's a bit too early to write him off, however, since he is still quite young at 23. So there's still hope.

Tosanoumi was unable to follow up his fine 10-5 mark in November and struggled just to get his eight wins this time. But at 27, he needs to make his move real soon.

Although he is capable of beating any of the top-rankers on any given day, Tochinonada (6-9) has been very slow in making his move, partly because of the injuries he has sustained. This year could provide the clue as to whether he has what it takes to rise beyond sekiwake.

Going down the banzuke to the end of the maegashira ladder, probably the only bright hopes are Takanowaka and Kyokutenho. Taka's victory over Miyabiyama was a real eye-opener and showed flashes of what he might be able to accomplish in the future, although his loss on the last day to No. 6 maegashira Kyokushuzan (who needed one more win for makekachi-koshi) was not very believable. His fine 10-5 record in only his second basho in Makunouchi is an indication that he is a real comer. Taka is just 23 and should receive a hefty promotion in March to a position that will test his mettle against the top-rankers. However, he needs to put on a bit more weight (he's still under 136 kg/300 lbs) on his still, rather-slender 191-cm (6-3) frame.

Kyokutenho's 11 wins could presage the upward turning point that he probably has been hoping for.

No. 2 Oginishiki captured the yusho in the lower Juryo Division with a strong 13-2 performance, with No. 1 Hayateumi finishing as runnerup with 12-3. These two will probably be promoted to Makunouchi in March, possibly along with the other No. 1, Daizen (10-5).

Headed for demotion from Makunouchi are No. 14 maegashira Kinkaiyama (7-8), No. 12 Ohinode (4-11) and No. 10 Otsukasa (5-10).

Both foreign rikishi in Juryo -- No. 3 Hoshitango (Argentina) and No. 9 Sentoryu (United States) -- suffered make-koshi, Tango at 6-9 and Sentoryu with 7-8. But they will remain in the second-highest division in March.

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